Making Change: Civics as a Second Language

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When Bella Yakubovich and Alexandra Sviridova came to a City Council hearing a few weeks ago, they did not have on smart jackets or expensive lipstick like most of the women officials in the room. The two elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union wore sensible skirts and sensible sweaters. They were there to defend English classes at senior centers against impending budget cuts, and as they took turns at the microphone, each first eyed it for a moment, as though collecting time to make their language sensible, too.

“We want to tell a doctor about our problems,” 71-year-old Yakubovich explained, trying to make the audience understand the value of her English class. “We want to go to the movie theater. Watch TV. To understand.”

“We would like to meet and speak with neighbors,” added Sviridova. “We have to know history and culture of country where we live. We ask you: Help us become complete citizen.”

The listeners were rapt.

Yakubovich’s and Sviridova’s English is not perfect. But a growing breed of ESL educators are teaching immigrants like them that spotty language skills needn’t keep them from talking at hearings and otherwise acting like citizens–even if they haven’t been naturalized, and even if they have no papers at all. The new teaching approach, often called “English Literacy-Civics” education (EL-Civics for short), is spreading through heavily immigrant U.S. cities on the strength of $70 million dollars a year in federal literacy funding that Congress first allocated in 2001. Annually, New York State gets over $10 million, with most of it going to New York City. For literacy educators, the new resources are a welcome replacement for earlier federal money, which got pegged to job-seeking rather than to citizenship-building efforts during the late 1990s zeitgiest of workfare.

As the name implies, EL-Civics combines language and civics training in one class. Many ESL instructors are still old school: they still give students fill-in-the-blank exercises with irregular verbs, have them memorize the three branches of government and teach them how to balance a checkbook. But for an increasing number, says Ira Yankwitt, director of adult literacy services at the New York City-based Literacy Assistance Center, language teaching is no longer solely dependent on textbooks. Nor is civics just “about field trips to the bank or City Hall,” he says. “It’s about critiquing the banking system.”

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Carolyn Grimaldi is an instructor at the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College. A few weeks ago, she started teaching a group of rank beginners. On a recent afternoon, she wrote “New York City” on the blackboard and, under that, two columns labeled “Positive” and “Negative.” Under “Positive,” the class of some 25 mostly Latin Americans enthusiastically produced fillers. “Good hospitals,” said a gray-haired man from Colombia. “Good universities,” another student added. “Many cultures! Different foods!” offered another, which led to a list of culinary nationalities that in New York could just as easily represent people: “Chinese.” “Brazilian!” “Italian!”

Under “Negative,” the students contributed: “Too expensive.” “The weather no good–very cold.” “It’s dangerous some place.” Grimaldi gently corrected–”Some places are dangerous”–and the student who’d made the error echoed her without seeming chastised. “Here is much cockroaches,” said one woman, and now several others jumped in as teachers: “A lot of cockroaches!” In the end, no one had opened a textbook, but the class had used dozens of new words and several grammar structures.

Then Grimaldi wrote their phrases on a “Problems: Solutions” chart, beginning with, “New York is too expensive.”

“What’s the solution?” she asked.

“Move!”

“Do you want to move?”

“No!” the students yelled, and the class rang with new suggestions: “Buy from 99-cent stores! Shop at Costco!”

The exercise is about far more than learning English. Grimaldi says her students are “getting used to the idea of posing problems and identifying solutions.” Later, she will guide them in articulating and analyzing an issue–perhaps the fact that their communities suffer disproportionately from health problems like diabetes and asthma. After choosing the problem, EL-Civics students often learn to do internet research to identify social service agencies and local politicians who can help with solutions.

With the teacher’s assistance, they may act as playwrights, inventing dialogues between an immigrant and an indifferent bureaucrat, says Hillary Gardner, who teaches advanced-level EL-Civics at LaGuardia. A cranky official may warm to an immigrant who knows how to say, “Have a nice day,” “Good morning” or “Thank you” with the cheerful inflection that native speakers use to sway reluctant public servants. “I have students keep a journal to record conversations they’ve had in English,” Gardner says. “I want them to get out, listen and think about what makes a good interaction.” Producing their own vocabulary and grammar for these efforts, they tend to remember far more than they would from a textbook. They gain knowledge of how things in their new country and city work, knowledge they may pass to families and friends. They develop a voice, both private and civic. They take control of their new lives.

Students swear by the new pedagogy. “My personal problem is losing my nervous for talk,” says Nelly Diaz, who was a nurse in Ecuador before immigrating to New York City. “We learn about everything here,” adds Lina Villarejo, a 19-year-old Colombian who hopes to be a U.S. journalist. “English in the street, in the newspaper. Life in the United States.… I like this method. You feel motivation. You feel happy.”

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In New York City, Grimaldi, Gardner and other EL-Civics teachers have learned their new pedagogy in seminars developed recently by the Literacy Action Center–better known as the LAC. The LAC is currently helping some 60,000 New York City adults improve their English. Many speak it as their first language but struggle with reading and writing. Others are immigrants grappling with a brand new tongue. For about 15 years, according to LAC’s adult literacy services coordinator, Winston Lawrence, his organization and other groups have been incorporating the notion of “participatory literacy” into their work.

The concept originated with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, author of the worldwide bestseller Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Part Marxist and part Christian mystic, Freire–who died in 1997–felt that traditional education reinforces elite power over poor people. It does this, he believed, by setting teachers up as authorities who “deposit” knowledge into empty-minded students, much as investors deposit money in a bank. If they get any education at all, poor people emerge from this teaching identifying with elites. Or they accept their oppression, feeling too ignorant and passive to challenge it.

As a remedy, Freire proposed a teaching method that recognizes that poor students bring a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to class. The trick is to articulate and apply it. Freire believed that teachers should help students name their problems, redefine them as collective rather than personal, figure out the causes and work together on solutions. According to this thinking, literacy skills are not dry lessons from textbooks. They develop as people labor in groups to improve their communities. They flow from civic life.

LAC’s Lawrence says that “participatory literacy” theory was first practiced a generation ago in developing regions such as the Caribbean, Africa and Mexico. By the early 1990s, it was being spread to the United States by people like Klaudia Rivera. Today Rivera is an education professor at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus; back then she directed the El Barrio Popular Education Program, in East Harlem.

Students at El Barrio were mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican women; many had been laid off from garment industry jobs and faced ongoing cuts in their unemployment and welfare benefits. As children, many had been too poor to go to school. At El Barrio, they improved their literacy in both Spanish and English. They told and wrote stories about their lives. They used computers and audiovisual technology to investigate community problems like irregular trash collection and dilapidated housing. They visited the Upper East Side to ask affluent whites what they thought of Latino immigrants (most said immigrants were good for the city). They made videos about their research that were aired on community-access television and by other activist groups.

The program and others like it ended, Rivera says, when the welfare reform act of 1996 tied funding for literacy and ESL to the requirement that students find jobs. “They had to spend their time doing resumes and training for interviews,” she remembers. But now, with the new infusion of EL-Civics money, “there’s an opportunity to play” again with participatory literacy concepts.

The results are visible citywide. At Brooklyn College, 400 students in the Adult Literacy Program wrote letters to Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, protesting proposed cuts to their program. In Washington Heights, Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation teacher John Lyons’ EL-Civics students researched housing problems. Some students ended up circulating petitions for Uni”n Comunal de Washington Heights, a group organizing against impending changes in rent policy that would harm low-income tenants. And at the Jewish Community Center of Staten Island, Bella Yakubovich and Alexandra Sviridova decided to go to City Hall to defend English classes for seniors.

Not every class produces such palpable action–but that’s OK with the educators. Participatory literacy methods may not lead to students taking to the streets, Winston says, “but they may take home what they learn and give it to family members.”

“Should they be demonstrating?” asks Gardner. She’s not sure. But she does believe that her teaching helps immigrants “become advocates for themselves.” And when that happens, she says, real civic engagement can follow.